The average American has at least 10 batteries in their possession at any given time and throws away 8 batteries per year. That statistic feels low to me. Members of my household blast through many more than 8 every few weeks. We try to use rechargeable batteries, because they’re reusable, but in some remote parts of the world where we work, we just need to bring disposables with us because the charging of batteries requires power.
Should we recycle batteries? Absolutely! The mercury and cadmium in our batteries can wreak havoc on the environment. According to the Environmental Health and Safety Organization, “In landfills, heavy metals have the potential to leach slowly into soil, groundwater or surface water. Dry cell batteries contribute about 88 percent of the total mercury and 50 percent of the cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream.”
By recycling batteries, we’re ensuring those heavy metals are captured again and kept from our watersheds. Whether they power our cell phones, laptop computers, or flashlights at night, batteries are an essential part of our everyday lives. Finding the nearest place to dispose of them is now easier, through your municipal recycling transfer stations and facilities like Ikea for alkaline batteries and Staples for rechargeables and cell phone batteries.
Here’s an amazing resource from Environment, Health and Safety Online that will clue you in about all of the different types of batteries and how they impact the environment. They also highlight how to safely dispose of them. For example, those tiny little button batteries that go in your watch or in some toys should go to your household hazardous waste facility. Them things are toxic!
In Nepal, where we travel each year, batteries are what enable us to make our documentaries for National Geographic and NOVA. Without that stored power, we couldn’t run our film equipment. Batteries, whether rechargeable, alkaline, gel cell, or lithium, are essential to our mission. Each one is carried back down from the mountains and reused on future expeditions. The spent batteries are taken home with us for safe disposal since there’s no battery recycling in Nepal. In the Himalaya, we’ve seen batteries regularly discarded outside villages in the rivers and streams.
Over the years, we’ve worked to set up a battery recycling program in the kingdom of Mustang, one of the highest watersheds in the world. We’re trying to inspire villages to collect their batteries and stockpile them. Trekking agencies heading out of the kingdom with their clients can take a bag or 2 of these batteries downhill to be disposed of responsibly in Kathmandu or Pokhara, two of the largest urban centers in Nepal. Better yet, trekkers could take batteries home with them to recycle them in their home countries. The crisis of battery waste building-up in the pristine wilderness needs to be addressed by everyone who lives and travels through these fragile environments. We pick up batteries in the villages we stay in, and do a cleanup with villagers whenever we can.
The next time you see a battery lying on the ground, whether it’s in a parking lot, on a trail in the wilderness, or outside a rural village, think of our planet as one interconnected ecosystem. All water, and whatever might have leached into it, travels downhill. If we address, globally, the most toxic materials first and then work our way down the waste chain to the more inert ones, we have a place to start and a set of priorities to follow.
If you’d like to help us, please donate, even a few dollars, to our battery rescue operation through the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.